The Noble Nature
by Ben Jonson
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day is fairer far in May
Although it fall and die that night -
It was the plant and flower of the light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.
When we talk about philanthropy, legacies, major gifts, or the "hyper-agency" (Paul Schervish's term) of big donors we lead most often to hubris, or immortality strivings. We talk big about permanence and scope and effect. We inflate the donor and monumentalize the gift. I can hear the wise donor murmur the final two lines of "The Noble Nature," under her breath as she signs the papers and tunes out the officious flattery: "In small measure we just beauties see;/ And in short measure life may perfect be." Immortality may be a crude egoisitc dream in comparison.
The title of the poem seems right, but Jonson might have mined the final aphoristic couplet and promoted to the title the lapidary phrase: "just beauties." In a noble gift, small or large, "we just beauties see...."
"And in short measures life may perfect be." Yes, but not exactly what we mean today when we talk of outcomes, measurement, and management. How much we have lost, haven't we, of what might have been our Noble Nature? You can't hardly measure how far we have fallen, into the businesslike, can you, since Jonson wrote so limpedly in imitation of the ancients? I can only imagine the modern reader's eyes skidding across the short elegant lines, seeking some purchase.
Likewise to those advisors to wealth, like James Hughes, who believe that it is noble to create an Aristocracy of dynastic wealth that will stand like an oak, or copper beach, for three hundred years, I might say, "Think smaller." Much smaller. Try for nobility for even one afternoon. "Just beauties" are found in all ranks, in a lilly of a day, no less than a beech, in a moment, no less than a monument, in a butler no less than his master. (Jonson, author of "Penshurst," a near deification of Sir Philip Sidney, might disagree with my passionate defense of bumpkins. See this post at The World We Want on H. Peter Karoff's meditation on the Rockefeller estate at Kykuit, for further glimpses of the intersection of aristocratic and democratic traditions. What is our Noble Nature, we of common blood? Whose gifts are those of, say, a poet, I wonder. If we are going to do aristocracy, let's do it right. The most noble people I have known wear shirtsleeves from one generation to the next, or better yet, like Tracy Gary doff the advantages of wealth and status to pass for ordinary, out of respect for what we all have in common. All praise to those who adapt the best of the noble traditions to this our bumptious democracy.)